ORLANDO, Fla. -- You can say this for the MLS All-Star Game: It has staying power.
Long after American peculiarities like the shootout and overtime were abandoned, the MLS' midsummer fiesta is still going strong. Its 24th edition is set to take place on Wednesday, when the All-Stars take on Atletico Madrid.
Throughout the years, the ASG has undergone something of a metamorphosis. It started out as an Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference affair, moved to a USA vs. The World format, then back to East vs. West and later MLS vs. the U.S. national team before finally settling on the MLS vs. European club model. Along the way, the game has served up some memorable moments, including a few that played up the league's reputation for oddity.
In the beginning
The inaugural match in 1996 was held at the old Giants Stadium, with the East vs. West format. The match served as a prelude to that day's main event in which Brazil's Olympic team -- augmented by the likes of Bebeto and Roberto Carlos -- went up against a FIFA World XI, with American John Harkes giving the FIFA team a bit of local flavor.
With 78,416 fans on hand, the prelude proved to be a more than adequate appetizer, with the East prevailing 3-2. And if you think Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the first MLS player to chafe against playing in the match, you only have to go to the first ASG to find a player whose mind was elsewhere.
"I had just gotten married," recalled then-San Jose Clash forward Eric Wynalda. "I had been in Cancun for like five days. I flew into New York and [LA Galaxy manager] Lothar Osiander was the coach of the West. I rolled into the lobby, and I'm wearing a white shirt and I'm super tan. He says, 'How long do you think you'll play?' I said, 'You've got a lot of guys to get in, but I'll give as much as I got.' Later he walked past me at halftime and said, 'Yes, you're done.'"
Tab Ramos went down in history as the first ASG goal scorer, chesting down a pass from Carlos Valderrama and firing a shot past Jorge Campos.
"Tab's goal is so underrated," said Wynalda. "It wasn't the best pass from Valderrama, but in front of that many people, he scored a brilliant goal. It was such a showcase for the league's potential."
The 2001 edition was the Landon Donovan Show. The 6-6 draw witnessed four Donovan goals, including a hat trick in the first 19 minutes, as well as a stoppage-time equalizer, all in his home venue of Spartan Stadium.
"I just remember being a kid in a candy store," he said. "I always viewed All-Star Games like, I want to do well. Guys probably hated me for it because I'm always putting an effort in. Most people are like, 'Chill out, dude.' But having all the eyeballs on the league in one place was cool."
There were also two goal celebrations featuring a jersey removal with a sports bra underneath -- one from Donovan and the other from Jim Rooney -- that made for an odd homage to U.S. women's national team icon Brandi Chastain.
"I have no idea where it came from or where it came up," Donovan recalled. "That was such an iconic moment that even two years later that was on everyone's mind. We just thought it would be fun. I was the young, dumb one, so I said, 'I'll do it!'"
The festivities were also marked by the last incarnation -- until this year at least -- of the MLS Skills Challenge. The sight of Donovan in his then-trademark blonde dye job is worth putting this footage in the MLS time capsule.
"The Skills Challenge was fun, I loved it," said Donovan. "It would be really cool, and we'll see how [Tuesday night] goes, but I'd be curious to see what it would look like if guys took it serious. [David] Beckham taking shots from the 18 and hitting targets, that would have been pretty impressive to watch."
The format changes
After tinkering with the East vs. West and U.S. vs. The World formats, the powers that be in MLS decided to go with something different in 2003. The All-Stars would go up against club opposition in Chivas de Guadalajara. Given the fact that 13 of the 18 All-Stars to take the field that day were U.S. internationals at some point in their careers, as well as Chivas' policy of fielding only Mexican players, the game had more intensity than your usual All-Star game. With the match falling on a weekend, and thus a longer recovery period, the MLS players had a bit more to give as well.
"There was some piss and vinegar to that game," said then-New England Revolution forward and current ESPN television analyst Taylor Twellman. "For most of us in that room, there was an edge to it. Later on you had the big European club coming over, and those didn't have the same feel as that Chivas game."
The All-Stars prevailed 3-1 on goals by Ante Razov, Carlos Ruiz and DaMarcus Beasley. After one final spasm of East vs. West in 2004, the concept of lining up club opposition was here to stay.
For Peter Nowak, there was no such thing as a friendly, regardless of whether he was playing or coaching. So when he took charge of the All-Stars for the game against the Jose Mourinho-led Chelsea in 2006, he tried to summon one of his trademark pregame speeches in order to get his charges suitably fired up. The problem was that one of his players committed the mortal sin of having his cell phone go off in the middle of his speech.
"It was the 'Miracle on Ice'-type speech," recalled then-D.C. United defender Bobby Boswell. "'They normally beat us, but today is our day.' Then the cell phone goes off, and it was when the ringtones had music, and it was like a Britney Spears song. It's clearly one of the goalie's lockers and Joe Cannon is sitting there with a straight face, just looking at Peter. Peter had to stop his speech and he doesn't know whether to blow a gasket or to laugh. He goes, 'Joe, is that your phone?' And Joe says, 'Uh, yeah, I think that might be my phone.' As if anyone else had Britney Spears as a ringtone. And then he turned it off and said 'Sorry about that.' Peter just couldn't get back the mindset. You just can't land the plane after something like that."
The incident had no ill effects on the All-Stars, who went out and defeated the Blues 1-0 on an absolute banger by the Houston Dynamo's Dwayne De Rosario.
"It's the story of MLS," said Boswell. "You've got the up-and-coming coach who wants to beat Chelsea and you've got the old-school clown goalie. It was perfect for our group because we were loose and we went out and got the win."
Donovan's sendoff and Pep's dark side
The 2014 edition of the MLS All-Star Game against Bayern Munich was straight out of the twilight zone. Many of the Bayern players were less than a month removed from having won the World Cup with Germany, and were clearly short of full fitness. The All-Stars prevailed 2-1 thanks to goals from Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan. But it was an industrial-strength tackle by Will Johnson on Bayern captain Bastian Schweinsteiger that set then Bayern manager Pep Guardiola over the edge.
"I wasn't happy because I had my ankle injury before," said Schweinsteiger ahead of Wednesday's All-Star Game against Atletico Madrid. "I played the ball and the guy really came like, literally very late. It was not like, you know, where it can happen; it was really late -- the ball was played already by far. That's why we were angry, our coaches were angry, I was injured for a little bit then. That was unnecessary."
At the final whistle, Guardiola wagged his finger at the All-Star bench and refused to shake the hand of manager Caleb Porter.
"I understand him, because he was angry because I was out," said Schweinsteiger about Guardiola. "From the World Cup 2014, I flew over to Portland and then I got an unnecessary kick. The guy could've easily stopped, you know. And then I was out for the next weeks so I was not ready for the first game, so that's why he was angry, and I understood him. Of course we don't want to see that [on Wednesday]."
Donovan recalled, "For Caleb that week, there was definitely a different feeling than other All-Star coaches. He took it very seriously. He tried to temper it, but you could tell. Pep was his idol. You could tell the apprentice wanted to show the master. His emotions got the better of him, and Pep wasn't exactly a gentleman either. But it was fun. It added a little bit to the game."
The two managers shook hands later, but the next day a veritable thunderbolt took place when Donovan announced he was retiring from the sport. All-Star Games are usually forgettable, but this edition was one that will never be forgotten.